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Why the Populist Surge Has Missed Canada

from the magazine

Why the Populist Surge Has Missed Canada

A decentralized federal government and a consensual culture have kept the lid on social tensions—so far. Autumn 2017
Politics and law

Much has been written and said about the antiestablishment, antiglobalization populist surge sweeping the West over the last several years. The most prominent manifestation of this phenomenon, of course, came in November 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency, the most stunning electoral feat in American history; earlier in 2016, Trump’s victory was foreshadowed by Britain’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union, an outcome pushed for years by the country’s nationalist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). But the United States and Britain are far from alone. Seemingly every major Western nation now has a populist movement and an anointed leader: Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France; Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, which has become the main opposition party in parliament; Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), founded by nostalgic ex-Nazi officers, which missed electing the country’s president by a whisker; and Italy’s Five Star Movement, led, literally, by a clown, Beppe Grillo, suitably called the clown prince. Even in Denmark, the model of a tolerant liberal democracy, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party is now the second party in parliament. Farther east, Hungary and Poland are today governed by openly nationalist governments.

National differences notwithstanding, election results show that support for and opposition to populist parties break along similar lines. Supporters tend to be older, less educated, blue-collar, white, male, and living predominantly in small towns or rural areas. Everywhere, the voting geography reveals a split between big cities and the rest of the nation. Manhattan voted massively against Trump, London against Brexit, Vienna against the FPÖ, and Paris against Le Pen; the small-town heartland in each case voted for them. It does not require a sociologist to understand that a similar social divide and mix of concerns are driving populism on both sides of the Atlantic.

One major outlier exists in this Western dynamic, though: Canada. A Western nation by any measure, a child of Britain and France, Canada has so far produced no evident equivalent of Trump, Wilders, or Le Pen, or of the political parties that back them. The revived Conservative Party of Canada, though it has its share of anti-immigrant supporters, has not veered into the kind of angry nativist oratory heard elsewhere. Political discourse in Canada has remained civilized, on the whole.

Populist currents aren’t completely absent. In my home province, Quebec City has a deserved reputation for radio poubelle (trash radio), where the verbal venom matches anything heard on American airwaves. On January 29, 2017, a young white supremacist, likely an avid listener of radio poubelle, killed six Quebec City Muslims and injured 19 as they were leaving a mosque after evening prayer, the worst such massacre in Canadian history. Less ominous, on October 25, 2010, Torontonians elected Rob Ford mayor of Canada’s biggest city. During Ford’s brief tenure, his crude language and antics made him into an international media star. Ford’s election was nothing if not a populist revolt of the good people of the suburbs, who voted for him in overwhelming proportion, against the snotty elites of the central city, who opposed him. Overall, however, populism remains a rare and isolated event in the Canadian landscape. The question is, why?

Canada has known populist parties in the past, the best-known example being Social Credit, a quirky political philosophy that saw the printing of money as the solution and banks and plutocrats as the great Satan. The Socreds, as they were called, exploded on the political scene during the 1930s in western Canada, in reaction to the Great Depression, which had devastated the prairie economy. Socially and fiscally conservative, the Socreds became the principal political force in Alberta, where they held power over three decades before being absorbed into the Conservative Party. The Socreds saw a second moment of glory in the 1960s, when les Créditistes (in their French reincarnation) become the voice of protest for many Catholic French Canadians dissatisfied with Quebec’s breakneck pace of modernization. Led by Trump-style firebrand Réal Caouette, les Créditistes went on to win a third of Quebec seats in the 1962 federal election. The party eventually withered away, as its idiosyncratic mix of conservative Catholicism and supply-side economics became anachronistic in a now thoroughly secular Quebec.

The Canadian history of Social Credit highlights two pillars of populism: economic adversity and cultural discontent. The Socreds in their 1930s prairie incarnation arose in reaction to an economic system perceived as shafting the decent, hardworking farmers of the West, directing its venom toward the East’s unscrupulous bankers and railway barons. In Social Credit’s second incarnation, in Quebec, the source of discontent was social change imposed on Quebecois by cosmopolitan urban elites, and with it the feared loss of a way of life. Alberta’s Socreds were absorbed into the political mainstream as the province recovered from the Great Depression—becoming Canada’s richest, thanks to oil—while Quebec’s Créditistes simply became irrelevant, part of the province’s political folklore.

One reason that populism hasn’t taken hold in Canada up to now is that it lacks a central target. In both the United States and Europe, the revolt against venal politicians, greedy bankers, big business, and big government has a sharply defined locus for its antagonism: in America, it’s the federal government in Washington, while in Europe, it is Brussels, headquarters of the European Union (national capitals come in for their share of hostility, too). In Canada, though, Ottawa (the federal capital) does not inspire anything like this level of vitriol. True, Ottawa-bashing is a staple of Canadian politics, especially in the West and in Quebec, and Ottawa politicians, as elsewhere, are not always paragons of virtue, but Canada’s political class is not generally viewed as chronically dysfunctional and corrupt. Nor, with some exceptions, is Ottawa seen as particularly intrusive or overbearing. The parliament buildings are imposing, but Ottawa does not exude the aura of imperial power of Washington. If anything, Canada’s capital is viewed as a rather sleepy place; no call to “drain the swamp” is heard.

One reason that populism hasn’t taken hold in Canada up to now is that it lacks a central target.

Canada has evolved into a highly decentralized federation. For most things that matter in daily life—education, health, municipal services—the real power lies with the provinces. Canada is not a great military power; politicians have much smaller pork-barrel rations to feed on. The majority of the federal budget goes to income transfers. The federal government administers few services directly, with the exception of border control (immigration), national defense, and unemployment insurance. This decentralized structure stems in part from Canada’s linguistic duality, in which the French-speaking province of Quebec fiercely defends its sovereignty; in recent years, the Western provinces, notably Alberta, have also become protective of their autonomy. This, in turn, gives rise to exclusively provincial political parties—as the Socreds were in Alberta—and, where present, provincial counterparts of national parties that operate largely independently of their national parent. The Conservative Party, for example, has no provincial sister in Quebec and is absent, for all practical purposes, in British Columbia. Canada has no equivalent of America’s institutionalized Democratic–Republican divide.

Canada’s political system and political culture are also part of the story. Its British parliamentary system, in which the party that wins the most seats automatically governs, precludes the executive-legislative standoffs common to the U.S. system. In the first-past-the-post electoral tradition, with only one meaningful legislature (the House of Commons), the winning party generally obtains a majority (or close to it), facilitating governance. The Canadian system is arguably less democratic than the American, but it avoids the kind of dysfunctional gridlock that has recently plagued Washington. Canadian history has also shaped a less antagonistic view of the state. Founded on antirevolutionary principles—“Peace, Order and Good Government,” as inscribed in the 1867 Constitution Act—Canada was settled by Loyalists who fled the American Revolution and, on the French-speaking side, by a population that wished to remain true to its ancestral faith and language. The result is a political culture in which the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—the right to bear arms—would be inconceivable, and universal health insurance is regarded as a self-evident obligation of the state. Canada has its small-government proponents, but the intense antistate public sentiment that helped fuel Trump’s victory is simply not present.

Passport control at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, separating Canada from the U.S., the only country with which it shares a border (J VIERA/SYRACUSE NEWSPAPERS/THE IMAGE WORKS)

In recent elections, liberal establishments on both sides of the Atlantic—Democrats in the U.S. and social democrats in Europe—found themselves on the wrong side of economic issues, especially as they pertained to globalization and free trade. The Left’s traditional bastions—the old socialist and Communist strongholds in France and America’s traditionally unionized blue-collar towns—swung massively to the populist Right. Here again, though, nothing similar has yet happened in Canada.

Canada is a small nation (population-wise) that depends on free trade, and polls confirm that the majority of Canadians continue to favor free-trade agreements—Trump’s anti–free trade rhetoric does not harmonize here. And Canada lacks the equivalent of an American Rust Belt or the devastated coal and steel regions of Europe. With its auto plants, southern Ontario (Michigan’s neighbor) comes closest; like many American manufacturing regions, it has seen some hard times, but nothing on the scale of the U.S. or Europe. Finally, Canada performed surprisingly well during the Great Recession of 2007–09, emerging largely unscathed, unlike most other Western nations. The country saw no subprime meltdown, no bank failures or bailouts, and no legion of families facing foreclosure as housing prices plummeted. One can see historical vindication in Canada’s steady performance: the nation’s banking system and strict mortgage-lending rules were often mocked as stodgy and risk-averse during boom times. In the end, stodginess paid off.

Economic events in Canada thus have not produced the conditions—a large pool of distressed workers or disgruntled homeowners—that they did elsewhere. The strength of Canada’s resource sector (oil, forestry, mining), with its plentiful well-paying blue-collar jobs, also has helped. Canada’s generous unemployment insurance and social-welfare programs have doubtless eased economic anxiety as well.

What about the nationalist, and sometimes nativist, strands of American and European populism? True, nationalist groups have suddenly crawled out of the woodwork across Canada. Such movements have not gotten much purchase in the country; all political parties have shunned them. Should Canada see an increase in terrorism, such as the September 30 attack in Edmonton that injured five, such groups might yet build momentum. For now, though, chance and geography have played key roles. Canada has no common border with the Third World, no foreign hordes threatening to engulf us. Getting to Canada takes some doing, unless one lives in the U.S., the only nation with which Canada has a common border.

I worked for four years in the Quebec ministry of immigration, where we had a saying: “Anyone who can survive our winter deserves to stay.” Geography makes its presence felt in several ways. Winter acts as a sorting mechanism, and Canada’s size means that immigrants come from different directions and nations, further reinforced by Canada’s linguistic duality. Haitians and North Africans tend to go to Quebec, Asians prefer Vancouver and Toronto, and Latinos settle more broadly. European immigration remains important. Distance and Canada’s immigration points system mean that newcomers are not universally poor. (See “Why America Can’t Lower Child-Poverty Rates.”) Distance makes both illegal immigration and cross-border wage competition much less of a factor.

In Canada, the word “Immigrant” does not conjure up a clear image of a political target, unlike in Europe, where “immigrant” is associated with North Africans in France, with Turks in Austria, and with Moroccans in Holland (and carries the connotation of potential terrorism, as when Wilders called for “fewer Moroccans”). As elsewhere in the West, the place of Muslims in society is a subject of public debate in Canada, but less heatedly so than elsewhere.

Finally, owing to its cold climate, which precluded the growth of cotton and other plantation crops, Canada is free of painful legacies of slavery and race as a central feature of political discourse. The potential for a political movement founded on racial anger is weak, at best.

Canada lacks a vast reservoir of voters worried that they are losing their country and their culture to outsiders. This, in the end, is the central difference between Canada, on the one hand, and the U.S. and much of Europe, on the other. So while the country has seen populist movements in the past and could yet see them again, the common ingredients that shape populism are in short supply. Canada remains quiet—for now.

Top Photo: Canadian banks, including the Royal Bank of Canada (shown here), did not get swept up in the mortgage-lending mania that helped precipitate the Great Recession in the United States. (NATHAN DENETTE/CANADIAN PRESS/ AP PHOTO)

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